Protests erupted in Pakistan Wednesday after the country’s Supreme Court acquitted a Christian woman sentenced to death for blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad.
Asia Bibi, a farm laborer from Punjab province, was convicted in 2010 after allegedly insulting the founder of Islam during an argument with neighbors — a charge she has always denied.
Her cause has rallied opponents of blasphemy laws worldwide, and proved a flashpoint in Pakistan, where two politicians have been killed for expressing support for Bibi.
Bibi, believed to be in her late forties, was not in court for the hearing, but was reportedly stunned by the ruling.
“I can't believe what I am hearing, will I go out now? Will they let me out, really?” she said from jail in Rawalpindi, according to AFP.
The judgment sparked a furious response from Islamist hardliners, who had promised to “paralyze the country” and kill the judges if Bibi was acquitted. Shortly after the ruling, the leadership of Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP), a party devoted to strict punishments for blasphemy, called for the deaths of chief justice Saqib Nisar and the other members of the panel who had ordered the release.
“The patron in chief of TLP, Muhammad Afzal Qadri, has issued the edict that says the chief justice and all those who ordered the release of Asia deserve death,” said party spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi.
Speaking to supporters in Lahore, Qadri called on devout Muslims in the Pakistani military to launch a mutiny against their superiors. “It is their responsibility that they should launch a rebellion against these generals,” he said.
Clashes were reported in cities across the country as Islamists took to the streets in protest, blocking roads, wielding clubs, and pelting police with stones.
The country’s new Prime Minister, Imran Khan, has not publicly addressed the case, in what it shaping to be an early test of his leadership. Khan has expressed support for blasphemy laws and has courted the religious right.
What was the case about?
The charges followed a confrontation with Muslim farm laborers, that began when they objected to a non-Muslim taking a sip from the same cup of water.
Bibi was accused of insulting the Prophet — an accusation she said at the time was made up by a woman who didn’t like her — and became the first woman to be convicted of blasphemy in Pakistan. The charge carries an automatic death penalty. Pakistan has never executed a person for blasphemy, although alleged blasphemers have been killed by angry mobs.
The court’s judgment was released Wednesday after a three-week delay due to threats from hardliners. The justices said they found no evidence of Bibi’s wrongdoing, and her accusers had “no regard for the truth.”
Bibi “appears to be a person, in the words of Shakespeare’s King Lear, ‘more sinned against than sinning’,” wrote Justice Asif Khosa.
Why has it proven such a flashpoint?
Bibi’s plight had drawn support worldwide from Christians, human rights groups, atheists and critics of Islam and blasphemy laws alike.
Critics say the case has highlighted a number of problems with Pakistan’s blasphemy laws — from allegations being used to settle personal vendettas, or target minorities, to the chilling effect Islamist and mob violence can have on defenders of those accused.
Religious minorities comprise only 3 percent of Pakistan’s population, but they account for more than half the country’s alleged blasphemy cases.
David Curry, the head of Open Doors USA, an organization that lobbies for Christian minorities, said in a statement that "we are breathing a sigh of relief today." In February, Pope Francis met Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, at the Vatican.
The case has proven explosive in Pakistan, highlighting the divide between religious conservatives and liberals, with the latter often terrified to speak out against the regressive laws for fear of reprisals.
Two politicians who voiced support for Bibi have been assassinated. Lahore provincial governor Salman Taseer was shot dead by his own bodyguard in 2011 after advocating for Bibi. Months later, federal minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic, was also killed after calling for her release.
Taseer’s killer, Mumtaz Qadri, was executed for the assassination, and has become a martyr for the blasphemy hardliners. The hardline TLP grew out of support for Qadri, and his grave has become a rallying point for those demanding Bibi’s death.
Pakistani security forces have been deployed to protect the judges involved in the case. Ahead of the verdict, Bibi’s lawyer told AP that the case had forced them to live in hiding.
According to a CNN report, at least two Western countries have offered asylum to Bibi once she is freed, amid concerns her life would be in constant danger if she were to remain in Pakistan.
Omar Waraich, Deputy South Asia Director for rights group Amnesty International, hailed the ruling as a “landmark verdict and an important victory for religious tolerance in Pakistan.”
“This was a case that was used to rouse angry and violent mobs, to justify the assassinations of two senior officials in 2011, and to intimidate the Pakistani state into submission,” he said.
“Mercifully, justice has prevailed. A clear message must now go out that the blasphemy laws will no longer be used to persecute Pakistan’s long-suffering religious minorities.”
Cover image: Protesters seen on streets during a demonstration in Lahore against the court decision to overturn the conviction of Asia Bibi on October 31, 2018 in Lahore, Pakistan. (Irfan Chudhary / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)